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Saturday, Dec. 19, 2009

Up in the Air

George Clooney’s Frequent Flyer Role

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Most of us will never face a hangman on the gallows or stare into the rifle barrels of a firing squad. We’re more likely to meet the sort of postmodern executioner played by George Clooney in Up in the Air, a man who will carry out the orders to deprive us of our livelihood rather than our life. Sadly, for some of us, livelihood and life amount to almost the same thing.

For Ryan Bingham (Clooney), his career of ruining the lives of others is just a job. Nothing personal, you understand. He gives motivational speeches in which he rationalizes his profession with a Darwinian philosophy. “Some animals are meant to carry each other. We are not those animals,” he tells the audience. “The slower we move, the faster we die ... We are sharks.”

And like a shark, Bingham has no fixed home. Directed by Jason Reitman (Juno) from the novel by Walter Kim, Up inthe Air is the ultimate story of contemporary rootlessness. Bingham is virtually a man without a country, jetting between nearly identical airports, living from room service in nearly identical hotels, racking up 350,000 miles a year as a terminator, doing the dirty work of downsizing in a shrinking job market. Lacking meaningful community or human values, Bingham seems perfectly wired for his heartless occupation.

Up in the Air is a wry comedy darkened by pathos. In one of the film’s most painful moments, Bingham’s young trainee Natalie (Anna Kendrick) is firing someone via laptop. She eliminates the job of a 57-year old man, a two-decade veteran of his company, presenting her sobbing victim with nothing but cut and paste platitudes. Although the fired man doesn’t know it, Natalie (with Bingham over her shoulder) is sitting in the next room.

Even a white-collar nomadic raider like Bingham originally came from somewhere and his birthplace, it turns out, was a small town in northern Wisconsin. He returns for his kid sister’s wedding with his occasional sex partner, Alex (Vera Farmiga), an executive whose path intersects his at many airline hubs. Soon enough, even the emotionally glib and disconnected Bingham begins to fall in love.

Since Reitman is no Hollywood hack, Up in the Air resolutely refuses to follow the expected flight plan. Suffused with sadness, Bingham seems to doomed to become a present-day Flying Dutchman, never to touch the ground for long.

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